Contraception and the Catholic Church – A short History (by Patricia Millar for RD)

Mar 5, 2015 | 6 comments

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Wherever Catholics gather this year to participate in the Synod on the Family consultation process, the issue of family planning and contraception will undoubtedly feature.  This short history of how it became and remains a hotly contested issue within the Church may be of interest.

The article was written by Patricia Millar for ‘Religion Dispatches’ under the sightly misleading title of “The story behind the Catholic Church’s stunning reversal on Contraception’.

‘Religion Dispatches’, writes on issues at the intersection of religion, politics and culture and is housed at the University of Southern California.  Patricia Miller is a Washington, DC–based journalist and senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches, where she writes about the politics of sexuality and the Catholic Church.


Years later, when the remembrance of so many other things had faded, the memory still remained crisp in her mind. She saw herself lying in the hospital bed, bleeding, writhing in agony. She remembered clawing at the curtain surrounding the bed, trying get help, certain she was going to die. Finally she managed to cry out, “God dammit, I can’t die. I have five children.”  …………………………..
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  1. Aidan Hart

    An interesting and informative article by Patricia Miller, but with a misleading title.

    It traces over a period of fifteen hundred years the grudging acceptance, by the Papacy and Church teaching, of marital joy in sex and engagement in non-procreative marital sex during the ‘safe period’ of ovulation; thus the misleading ‘Stunning Reversal on Contraception’ part of the title.

    The acceptance of engagement in sexual intercourse by married couples, one of whom may be infertile, or after the onset of female menopause (both situations rendering sex non-procreative) was surprisingly allowed or not commented upon by the Church. This is seen by many married couples and Catholic moral theologians as contradicting, or at least questioning the validity of, the current Catholic Church’s position on contraception.

    Only a Church that, almost from its genesis (cf writings of St. Augustine 353-430 AD) was deeply suspicious of sex (and later imposed celibacy, for the first time in the history of the Church, even on the lives of diocesan clergy below the rank of Bishop), could take that long to understand that the joy and physical intimacy of sex and the human touch of kissing and tender caressing, are the glue that mostly holds the human relationship of marriage together. “With my body I thee worship.” (Anglican) says it all. Mutual love, trust and communication are also vitally important ingredients of that ‘glue’.

    The Church is often greatly burdened by its own history. While not rejecting the divine wisdom of infallibility, used sparingly and after consultation with the whole Church, I do recognise the presence of what several theologians now call ‘creeping infallibility’ since the Church started to increase and over-centralise its authority after the Protestant Reformation. It now regards its teaching on too many issues as immutable and then can’t change or adapt them when growing wisdom, justice and evolving situations would require.

    This refusal to change seems more attributable to avoiding the loss of face than divine wisdom. We see that desire for unnecessary immutability in Saint John Paul the Second’s teaching on the permanence of an all male priesthood. He sought to bind all future generation into eternity with his 20th century, and of necessity limited, understanding of the issue. That is going to cause massive problems to future Popes who, hopefully, will eventually come to see its inherent injustice to women and damage to the Church community.

    The Church, like the Bible and Jesus himself, is both divine and human. We ignore their human aspects at our peril! Jesus was fully human in everything but sin. He had to develop and painstakingly come to the realisation of who He was. Thus “He grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:25)

    However, the Catholic Church has often had difficulty ‘growing in wisdom’, following behind secular advances in areas of human development and justice rather than leading them; hence its lateness in condemning anti-Semitism, fear of women (at times verging on misogymy), slavery, the grave abuses of colonialism, the violence and corrupting influence of the Mafia (much of whose money the Vatican bank laundered), sex abuse of children by clergy, cover up of this abuse by the Vatican and various Bishops, and its slowness in supporting democracy, freedom of conscience and ‘green’ issues. More recently there is the refusal to move to inclusive language in the liturgy and Vatican documents. The Catholic Church is often hesitant about admitting the human and fallible aspects of its nature, and its need to keep growing in wisdom and mercy. It has preferred instead to over-emphasise its divine aspect and thus its immutability and infallibility. That gives it more prestige, respect and control. However, it also disguises its human weaknesses and failings and hinders development, including development in the whole area of sexuality.

    When the humanity of Jesus, of the Bible and of the Church are ignored, we worship idols. In the debate on the papal encyclical of Paul VI, entitled Humanae Vitae (Human Life; 1968), this misguided worship of an unchanging, totally and always infallible, Church and unchanging papacy, is evident. A major part of the advice given to Pope Paul V1 by a small number of clerical theologians on the papal commission on contraception set up by his predecessor, was that accepting the advice of the majority on the commission for change in the Church’s long-standing teaching on contraception would call into question the teaching authority of the Papacy and thus undermine its current and future authority. We saw that idol worship of the human side of the Church operating again with the Vatican and bishops who refused to acknowledge for decades (and perhaps centuries) the presence of paedophilia among members of its clergy, lest it damage the image and reputation of the Church.

    All of humanity is flawed and thus prone to sinfulness. This means that all human institutions, and institutions with a human dimension, are prone to sinfulness. The only way to cope with that inherent weakness is for those institutions to recognise their vulnerability to sin and thus to work with openness and accountability and to keep growing in wisdom, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Only then will an honest review of the appropriateness of Humanae Vitae for marriage today become possible.

  2. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Flawed and prone to over-reach, the Church stepped into a boundary that really no one has dominion over except the individual : “What constitutes a healthy relationship?”. The Church however understands that a healthy culture is one of a certain fertility level which continues the actual existence of the Spirit in our locals, communities and extended neighborhoods. The inability to reproduce, which is the gravest sin to our culture no matter how it is represented, is something they have protected because it represents the basic of human rights, not the dominion of our human tendencies which they seem to be more interested in protecting for some reason. Their quick growth in power corrupted, absolutely, any chance of their growth in wisdom at the same rate. But all this can be rewritten at any time, thankfully.

  3. Martin Murray

    Thank you Aidan. You have hit so many nails on the head in your comment.

  4. Martin Murray

    ‘The Church is often greatly burdened by its own history. While not rejecting the divine wisdom of infallibility, used sparingly and after consultation with the whole Church, I do recognise the presence of what several theologians now call ‘creeping infallibility’ since the Church started to increase and over-centralise its authority after the Protestant Reformation.’

    I admire your diplomacy here Aidan. I think you are absolutely right here when you say ‘The Church is often greatly burdened by its own history’, or rather I feel, burdens itself with its own history. As a church we seem to prefer to do theological somersaults to justify bad or outdated doctrine and for me infallibility falls heavily into this category. I think it is a hangover from a very narcissistic era of church history. We would be much better served if the magisterium were to solemnly declare itself, the church and everyone in it (and I mean everyone) to be very fallible indeed. It would certainly win more respect if it did, and I suspect do its credibility and ability to influence in society, quite literally, a world of good.

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson

    Martin, what do you consider “very fallible” – what is your range?

    Are you talking about the cardinal sins or the “social” of Benedict’s tenure?

    If you are referring to the “social”, we have turned the targets of Benedict’s tirade into Gods themselves long ago. We don’t need any period of reflection.

    • Martin Murray

      Nothing complicated Llyod. Just fallible (capable of making mistakes or being wrong).


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